Lewis Coser, 89, Sociologist
Who Focused on Intellectuals
By Douglas Martin
Lewis Alfred Coser, a
politically active sociologist who grappled with the social
role of intellectuals in influential books, articles and speeches,
as well as in his personal politics, died on Tuesday in Cambridge,
Mass. He was 89 and lived in Cambridge.
Dr. Coser wrote or edited two dozen books; his doctoral dissertation
became the book "The Functions of Social Conflict,"
a mainstay of post-World War II sociology.
He sought to separate his leftist inclinations from his academic
sociology. In 1954, with Irving Howe, he created the radical
journal Dissent as he was editing a book of sociological theory.
He taught at the General College of the University of Chicago
and the University of California. He founded the sociology department
at Brandeis University and taught there for 15 years before
joining the sociology department of the State University of
New York at Stony Brook.
His interest in how intellectuals interact with real-world economic
and power concerns was apparent. In his 1966 book, "Men
of Ideas: A Sociologist's View," which amounted to a historical
analysis of what has come to be called a public intellectual.
Lewis S. Feuer in The New York Times Book Review called the
book "engaging, provocative."
The book ranged from American abolitionists to Russian Bolsheviks
to reach the conclusion that the intellectual is necessarily
a person in opposition, a restless malcontent. Dr. Coser worried
that "the end of intellectuals" was occurring because
intellectuals were being absorbed by government and corporation.
He was born on Nov. 27, 1913, in Berlin. His name was originally
Ludwig Cohen; his father later changed the family name, and
he himself changed his first name on the advice of an American
immigration official, his grandson Andrew Perrin said.
His parents were upper middle class, but he joined the socialist
movement as a teenager. When Hitler came to power, he fled to
Paris, where he studied comparative literature and sociology
at the Sorbonne and was active in Marxist politics. His studies
were interrupted by World War II when the French government
sent him to an internment camp in the South of France because
he was German, despite his being an anti-fascist Jew.
He was able to immigrate to the United States in 1941. He married
Rose Laub, the caseworker at the International Relief Association
who had obtained a visa for him. They earned doctorates in sociology
from Columbia University and collaborated on academic work.
She died in 1994. Dr. Coser is survived by his partner, Leona
Robbins of Cambridge; his daughter, Ellen Coser Perrin of Brooline,
Mass.; his son, Steven Coser of Melrose, Mass.; three grandsons;
and a great-grandson.
During the postwar years, Coser socialized with leftist intellectuals
in New York and wrote for several political magazines, including
Dwight McDonald's Politics, Partisan Review and The Progressive.
He did not shrink from criticizing those on the left. In 1958,
The Daily Worker, a Communist newspaper, called his "American
Communist Party: A Critical History (1919-1957) an "unscrupulous
defense of the capitalist system."
His politics remained leftist, if anti-Communist, as reflected
by an autobiographical statement he made to the publication
"Sociological Lives" in 1988, as reported in World
"I have never been uncomfortable with being, to use the
terminology of Chairman Mao, both pink and expert," he